“Violence”

379952_2463771285988_1603420228_32505295_1460412144_nHorrified to wake up today to see that Bloomberg has ordered an overnight police raid on Occupy Wall Street. The 5,000 books in the OWS library: dumped. Destroyed [edit at 4:15pm Nov 15: actually, not destroyed. The City really screwed up in not making this information public as soon as possible edit again at 12:21 PM Nov 16, actually mostly destroyed]. Bloomberg gave (is giving?) a press conference, not so much to justify his decision (since, for the powerful, as we know from Marie’s fables, the act itself is the justification) as to offer the public the proper narrative. Here, he is saying, is how we must understand. Here is what we must know. Hail to/from the Chief!

He is saying this (which I learned about via here):

At one o’clock this morning, the New York City Police Department and the owners of Zuccotti Park notified protestors in the park that they had to immediately remove tents, sleeping bags and other belongings, and must follow the park rules if they wished to continue to use it to protest. Many protestors peacefully complied and left. At Brookfield’s request, members of the NYPD and Sanitation Department assisted in removing any remaining tents and sleeping bags. This action was taken at this time of day to reduce the risk of confrontation in the park, and to minimize disruption to the surrounding neighborhood.

To reduce the risk of confrontation. Shades of “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it,” no? I’m put in mind, too, of the appalling narrative offered by University of California Police Captain Margo Bennett, whose forces, acting with the at least implicit approval of UC Chancellor Birgeneau, assaulted students and professors. Captain Bennett (caput! yet another head!), had this to say for/to us: “I understand that many students may not think that, but linking arms in a human chain when ordered to step aside is not a nonviolent protest.”

Right. On the question of confrontation and violence, here’s some material from my book, edited a bit:

Slavoj Žižek’s Violence: Six Sideways Reflections distinguishes between subjective, objective, and symbolic violence. Subjective violence, violence as it is typically understood, is committed by a “clearly identifiable agent” an individual murderer, an anthropophagous pig, a 70-year-old poet, and so forth whose act disturbs the supposedly peaceful relations of the status quo. Objective violence is the systemic and generally unacknowledged violence by which the status quo sustains itself, committed as a constitutive element of the “objective” status quo itself. Finally, symbolic violence is the violence of language, which distinguishes one subject from another (and thus renders a nonnarcissistic relation between subjects possible). My thinking with Žižek’s terms could, in fact, start with his own work. When he asserts that, because they possess language, “humans exceed animals in their capacity for violence,” he decides as confidently as any humanist that animals lack language, and, like any humanist, he sustains that difference by ranking human lives above animal lives: through the subjective violence of his own carnivorousness (exemplified by his notorious assertion that vegetarians are “degenerates . . . turn[ing] into monkeys”); through the objective violence of exercising the privilege of being human in a system that fundamentally values human life more than anything else; and finally through the symbolic violence by which he not only articulates a distinction between subject and world (a necessary activity for any thought capable of acknowledging others as others, for better or worse), but also posits an abyssal difference between animals and humans. All these violences work in concert to generate the human and the animal.

Later in the book, I consider Ratramnus of Corbie’s Letter on the Cynocephali (treated by me here some years ago). Ratramnus proves that the Cynocephali, the monsters with human bodies and dogheads, are human, because they domesticate animals. Though they wear hides, the flayed skins of their dead animals, and though “suisque cogant imperiis subjacere” (they compel them to submit to their rule), Ratramnus explains “At vero cenocephali, cum domesticorum animalium dicuntur habere multitudinem, eis minime convenit bestialis feritas, quorum animalia domestica lenitate mansuefiunt” (but since the cynocephali are said to keep a multitude of domestic animals, then animal fierceness does not fit them, because they tame their domestic animals gently).

Gentle Compulsion! Here’s what I said:

No matter how gently Ratramnus claims it is enforced, Ratramnus has not purged violence from the subjugation of animals: he has in fact preserved its aspects of mastery for his newly named humans, while attempting to displace the violence from the enactors onto the “fierce” victims. To recall Žižek’s distinction again, Ratramnus’s attention to the subjective violence of the domesticated animals masks the objective violence of cynocephalic—and, by extension, human—ascendancy. Typically, the mask is a symptom, in this case, of Ratramnus’s wish to elude his own knowledge of the impossibility of being human. The cynocephalic head, terrifying, carnivorous, yet in the place of reason, materializes the ineluctable and dehumanizing violence of the human condition. Like any human, the cynocephali must dominate animals; but to do so, and thus to claim reason for themselves and deny it to animals, requires violence; but to be violent means acting like a beast. Without “bestialis feritas” there is no claim to possess reason, and thus no claim to be human; but neither is there a human with it.

The cynocephali? They’re just avoiding confrontation. If their animals try to keep their hides on, they’re the ones being violent. If one of their beasts fights back, they’re the ones being a ferox, ferocious, an animal.

Hail to the chief with a dog’s ravening head!

(image via here)

#occupythemiddleages “God Spede the Plough”

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I couldn’t have done better on purpose. Yesterday afternoon, my wife and I set out to join a couple ten thousand of our Union allies to march on Wall Street. Earlier that day, in my medieval senior seminar on eating, I taught Chaucer’s Plowman portrait, Piers Plowman B.6 (the “Hunger” passus), and “God Spede the Plough”. I told the students I’d be starting my office hours early so I could get out for the protest, gave a bit of CUNY-specific context about my going (I pointed to the blackboard and said, this one here, it’s ok, but you know it’s about the only decent blackboard on this floor), and then stymied an incipient discussion about contemporary politics.

Not that that did much good. What ensued was necessarily political. Everything(?) is, anyhow (always historicize! says the one; always de-correlationize says the other; sometimes they speak together), and it can’t help but be when we’re reading medieval texts about peasants. For Chaucer’s Plowman portrait, for example, I asked the students why Chaucer had the Plowman work for free; why he omitted the coercions of the landowners; and why the second line of the portrait links him with “donge”: here, I said, is an image that’s at once one of production and disgust, delight in food (which the peasant brings) and disgust at our reliance on the body and the labor of peasants (remember, I said, who would have been reading this text: not the 99%).

Then “God Spede the Plough.” Here’s the first stanza translated:

As I walked myself over wide fields

When men began to plow (“ere”) and sow,

I saw how quickly farmers hastened

with their beasts and plow all in a row.

I stood and saw the beasts well yoked/used

To plow the land that was so tough;

Then to a farmer I said this saying,

“I pray to God, may the plow prosper.”

First I suggested that the last line, repeated at the end of each of the poem’s 12 stanzas, might be operating like Shakespeare’s “Brutus is an honorable man.” Watch, I said, how the context changes the meaning of this only apparently innocuous line.

Then: who is this I and why do we need him? Why does the voice of the farmer require an intermediary? Spivak proved to be useful here: I proposed that the text thematizes the impossibility of hearing peasant voices directly. As in “French” feminism, the peasant cannot speak in this system and be heard as a peasant. Notably, the last stanza (ll. 89-96) shows this witnessing “I” completely missing the point of what he had heard. From the third to the eleventh stanzas, the farmer complains that peasants work, and work, and work, and one after another the rich show up to demand their cut. The land may be tough, but what’s worse are the rich. Yet the final stanza, missing the entire point of the complaint, offers nothing better than be of good cheer. The event has not happened.

I focused on this stanza:

“To paye the fiftene ayenst our ease,

Beside the lordys rente of our londe —

Thus be we shepe shorne, we may not chese,

And yet it is full lytell understonde.

Than bayllys and bedellis woll put to their hande

In enquestis to doo us sorwe inough,

But yf we quite right wele the londe;

‘I praye to God, spede wele the plough.'”

And yet it is full lytell understonde: the line teaches itself, yes?

I led them through two translations of the last 4 lines. The obvious reading: “Then bailiffs and beadles will take hold of us in inquests to do us sorrow unless we do right by the land: ‘I pray to God, may the plow prosper.'” In a classic damned if you do/don’t sentiment, the farmer says they’ll be fleeced either way: if they prosper, the priest and friars and nobles will reduce them to penury; if they don’t prosper, they’ll be arrested for not paying their rents.

Another translation, with slightly different punctuation: “Then bailiffs and beadles will take hold of us in inquests to do us sorrow; but if we totally abandon the land, I pray to God, may the plow prosper.” The complaint’s now a threat: do wrong by us, haul us off to jail, and you will all starve. You need us. We are many; you are few.

Then I returned to Monday’s class, when I taught Wynnere and Wastoure (translation here). Here’s a closed argument between a miserly and spendthrift noble about who better serves the kingdom and their own souls. What their debate leaves out are are the workers whose efforts–not Winner’s–stuff the granges to the bursting point. For this debate, workers are only subjects of charity, there to get by as best they can on the leftovers of Waster’s excess.

If we read Wynnere and Wastoure from the anamorphic perspective of “God Spede the Plough,” we see the truth of the matter: both these nobles are wasters. Both sponge off the labor of others. In sum: class means class war. À bas the 1%!

And then, not having taught a political class at all, I went to the protest.

294508_2344980178503_1069963695_2689308_915535336_n(here I am with my colleague Samir Chopra: some of you may want to read his most recent book, A Legal Theory for Autonomous Artificial Agents)

(and a big tip of the hat to “Vellum” for the twitter tag #occupythemiddleages)